Published by EH.NET (December 2006)
Richard Perren, Taste, Trade and Technology: The Development of the International Meat Industry since 1840. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. xi + 285 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-3648-8.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Lee A. Craig, Department of Economics, North Carolina State University.
Roughly an hour’s drive from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the town of Tar Heel, one finds what is advertised as “the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse,” where the Smithfield Packing Company “processes” 30,000 animals a day. A hundred years ago, according to figures cited by Alfred Chandler, Armour and Swift each averaged about the same number of animals per day. At the time, pork alone accounted for between two and four percent of U.S. GDP. For good reason Chandler emphasized the meat industry in his masterful study of the rise of big business. The meat trade remains big business.
Richard Perren’s Taste, Trade and Technology documents the history of that business. Over the past three decades, Perren, Reader in Economic History at the University of Aberdeen (UK), has written extensively about the meat trade, and this volume serves as something of a summary of his research. It is the trading specifically, rather than production, which receives the majority of the focus, and it is the international component of that trading that gets the most detailed treatment. In particular Perren places British consumers at the center of the trade — the hub, so to speak — around which the major producer-exporters revolve. Those exporting countries include the United States, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand. This arrangement is appropriate enough, because in the late nineteenth century the huge British market imported the equivalent of roughly ten million animals a year, the majority of which came from the aforementioned exporting countries.
The volume is divided into three sections, each corresponding with a chronological era. The first era (1840-1914) covers what might be referred to the rise of the industry, and, as Perren writes, “the main development driving the whole process was technical change in the meat processing industry” (p. 38). Although meat, on the hoof or otherwise, had been traded for centuries, Perren documents the tremendous growth of the trade in the late nineteenth century, as production expanded in the exporting countries. The second era (1914-1945) emphasizes the ways in which governments increasingly exerted “official control” over the industry, including “enforcement mechanisms, in the form of new health and veterinary regulations, commercial marketing methods, the abandonment of free trade and the introductions of tariffs and quotas” (p. 130). For those who come to the volume from the agricultural production side of the industry, this section is potentially the most informative, summarizing as it does the origins and subsequent history of the public policies governing the meat industry. Part Three covers the period from the end of World War II to the present, and extends the themes in Part Two with the addition of a detailed account of changes on the demand side of the market, in particular the “relative changes in the consumption of different types of meat” (p. 188).
Readers looking for a detailed account of the actual production side of the trade — that is, taking the animal from birth to the processing plant, will not find this volume as useful as those interested in what happens to the carcass after the slaughter. Similarly, Perren works harder at explaining the impact of specific technologies, such as mechanical refrigeration, than he does at explaining the technologies themselves. However, there are plenty of good volumes on animal husbandry and technology; Perren’s contribution is synthesizing and summarizing the history of the trade. At this he succeeds.
Perren’s strength is his ability to unravel the mysteries and competing interests behind the scenes of negotiations concerning the meat trade and then concisely summarizing them for the reader. Scholars often find themselves in a situation in which we need a few pages on a particular topic, only to find either a paragraph or a several-hundred-page volume. With respect to the meat trade, however, Perren’s concise explanations of a subject like the New Zealand marketing board or the Ottawa Imperial Conference of 1932 are informative without being too detailed for the non-expert, and even readers who think New Zealand lamb is an overrated dish, will be edified by Perren’s summary of that dish’s political economy. Needless to say, in each case, the quest for profit, albeit with increasing help from the coercive powers of the state, is at the heart of the story.
That story concludes with the present in which the confined hog operations of eastern North Carolina represent the apogee of the industry’s evolution over the past two hundred years. With more hogs than people — ten million, at last count — the state is home to a pork industrial complex that concentrates production, with thousands of animals penned together, in sheds the size of football fields. Dealing with the concentrated waste from these operations, on a coastal plain only a few feet above sea level, is a monumental engineering feat — one that has yet to be solved in a cost-efficient manner. The open air lagoons in which the waste is processed emit an odor that can be detected miles away. A standard story about the local industry goes like this: A traveler from other parts, passing through on his way to some place else, pulls into a “down east” gas station to fill up. Upon emerging from his car, he detects the unfamiliar and oppressive odor. Sniffing, he turns to a local and asks: “What does that smell like to you?” The local pretends to sniff, and, as if recognizing the smell for the first time, responds: “Smells like money to me.” Indeed. As Richard Perren documents, the meat industry has smelled like money for a long time.
1. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977, pp. 391-401. 2. Lee A. Craig and Matthew T. Holt. “Mechanical Refrigeration, Seasonality, and the Hog-Corn Cycle,” unpublished manuscript, North Carolina State University, 2006, p. 28.
Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University. His most recent published research on Sus scrofa domesticus includes, with Matthew T. Holt, “Nonlinear Dynamics and Structural Change in the U.S. Hog-Corn Cycle,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 88 (Feb. 2006): 215-33.